Radford University students and faculty makes competition one for the history books

The Virginia History Day regional competition held by Radford University this April was unlike any other hosted in previous years.

Then again, historians will tell you that 2020 is unlike any year we have lived through in the past century.

In a normal year, faculty from Radford University’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership bring to campus between 50 and 70 middle and secondary school students from local schools to participate in the annual Virginia District 3 History Day competition. During a day-long event, students present to judges history-related projects they have been diligently piecing together for months.

There is a theme to the competition, and students prepare and present their projects through various media forms, including documentaries, exhibits, performances, websites or papers. Each student has a chance to present their topic to judges made up mostly of Radford University students, faculty and staff. It is a process that can be exhilarating and nerve-wrecking at the same time.

Radford University's Department of History began organizing the District 3 competition on campus in 1996. In 2015, Radford’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership (STEL) took responsibility for coordinating the competition with STEL faculty members Ann Roberts, Ph.D. and Kristan Morrison, Ph.D. serving as lead organizers.

But, this year was different. With Radford University and Virginia public schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the competition was first thought to be in jeopardy.

Organizers, however, were not about to let the students’ hard work go for naught, and they did what so many others are doing to combat the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented – they moved the competition online for the first ever virtual district, and later, state competition. This year’s theme, appropriately, was “Breaking Barriers in History.”

“With the onset of school closures due to the pandemic this year, Ann and Kristan adapted quickly to the changes we had to implement to keep the program going,” said Virginia History Day Coordinator Sam Florer.

“The decision to move to a virtual format was made on March 13, exactly one week before the District 3 contest was originally scheduled to occur. Ann and Kristan fully embraced the situation and were determined to not cancel the contest.”

Once the changes were in place, school children simply submitted their projects for judging with the help of their teachers. The District 3 competition had 57 students participating from six schools. And this year, in a competition normally reserved for middle school students, fourth- and fifth-grade children were permitted to enter in the exhibits category.

Participating schools in District 3 included Blacksburg Middle School, Blacksburg New School, Eastern Montgomery High School, St. John Neumann Academy, Shawsville Middle School and Burlington Elementary School in Roanoke.

“These were not the best of situations,” said Roberts, a professor of education in secondary social studies at Radford University. “We had projects left in schools undone, and students without technological means. I had many first-year teacher participants calling me at all odd hours, not to mention judging online. All that and many other variables that made this year’s competition complex.

“But, the students got it done,” she continued. “And, the teachers got it done. They’re all heroic.”

Those heroics did not go unnoticed by the Virginia History Day organizers.

“To ensure all students who had initially registered for the contest continued on in the new format, Ann personally called every teacher to discuss the changes and answer any questions they or their students had,” Florer said. “This hands-on approach resulted in 92% of those students who had initially registered successfully submitting their projects. This was by far the highest success rate out of the 4 district contests that were forced to move to a virtual format.”

Roberts allowed her student teachers to organize and serve as facilitators for the virtual sessions. Danielle Vogt, a graduate student in curriculum and instruction, facilitated the virtual meeting that involved judging research papers that explored the topics of social media: “A Tool for Demonstrators or Dictators?” “How Andrew Carnegie Rose from Rags to Riches While Breaking Barriers in the Steel Industry,” and “Hedy Lamarr’s Journey from Actress to Barrier-Breaking Inventor.”

In the virtual meeting with Vogt were fellow Radford University students Brandon Ray, Rob Nash, and Morrison. Judges examined each project for historical quality in relation to theme and clarity of submitted documents.

Before they met, each had meticulously read over the submitted papers and provided “warm and pushing feedback,” Roberts said, that would be given back to the participating students.

“I had judges in my category that were in my student teaching cohort, and I feel like it was an amazing opportunity for us to practice teaching skills by giving feedback that was critical and feedback that was helpful,” Vogt said.

Aside from meeting the school kids, which is what the judges missed the most this year, the virtual meetings were not all that different.

“This is all pretty similar to how judging normally is except we’re usually sitting around a table having these discussions, except with the Zoom meetings, there is no lunch,” Morrison lightheartedly explained.

In Vogt’s and other student teachers’ roles as facilitators, their job was to coordinate and organize dates and times to meet virtually with judges. In the meetings, they led discussions about projects that fell inside their assigned category.

“I was also responsible for keeping track of the judges’ responses to individuals’ papers during the time of our meeting,” said Vogt of Front Royal, Virginia. “I kept track of first and second place, and honorable mention. Also, I kept three pieces of warm feedback and three pieces of pushing feedback for each individual to receive.”

That is part of the “reward,” for the school children, Roberts said, “to have adults take time to give you feedback.”

After long hours of scrambling to make the competition work, and even more hours of virtually running the event, they had their winners, who went on to compete – virtually, of course – in the Virginia state finals.

“Dr. Roberts and everyone made the whole process of Virginia History Day feel effortless, and I feel that helped to make it seem as normal as possible,” Vogt said.

And, ultimately, Florer said, “The contest went off without any major issues. The success of the District 3 contest this year would not have been possible without Ann’s and Kristan's dedication, experience, and close relationship with local educators." 

Jun 5, 2020
Chad Osborne